Printer-friendly versionSend by email
Alroy, Edited by Sheila A. Spector

Criticism

Richard A. Levine. Benjamin Disraeli. New York: Twayne, 1968. 51-7; 90-3.
  1. The significance of Alroy to the later Young England novels is threefold. First, in this novel Disraeli most clearly articulates his debt to the past. Second, Alroy removes whatever doubt might have remained in any reader’s mind about Disraeli’s Hebraic consciousness. Third, and most important, is what will be discussed as the allegory of the novel—an allegory which develops the efficacy of great, traditional principles and of the destruction inherent in compromising them.

  2. Much confusion has been engendered by Disraeli’s comment that his ideal ambition can be seen in Alroy. Monypenny has suggested that Disraeli was simply too astute a politician ever to have undertaken a Hebrew crusade. Philip Guedalla has commented that “. . . it is not easy to believe that he [Disraeli] ever played, even in fancy, with the notion of a Jewish career. Can we forget that Contarini’s Jerusalem was largely notable for its Christian and Moslem antiquities? And even in Alroy, for all its highly scented eloquence, the Jewish quality was distinctly tepid.”1 Both Monypenny and Guedalla are essentially correct in their assumption that Disraeli never seriously considered a “Jewish career,” but Disraeli’s “ideal ambition” can be discussed in terms meaningful beyond the obviously limiting qualification of such a career. I have previously commented that Disraeli was emotionally and intellectually involved with the Hebrew “race” rather than with the Jewish religion, and in Alroy we have the clearest example of that involvement. Disraeli frequently goes to the past to discover (or uncover) traditional principles by which contemporary problems might be better understood and controlled. Is it not possible to read the author’s ideal ambition in these terms as a commitment to traditional principles and to the Hebraic past? And, by Disraeli’s own qualification, the Hebraic past must also include Christian tradition.

  3. Furthermore, the diary entry in which he mentioned the ideal ambition reflected in Alroy was written in the same year that saw the publication of his Vindication of the English Constitution (1835). This is a Disraeli in his early thirties who is studiously engaged in a consideration of the past and who is also seriously intent on a political career. Yet he later looks back across the few years to Alroy and perceives his ideal ambition mirrored there. The commitment to tradition which permeates the Vindication might very well be part and parcel of Disraeli’s reading of his ideal ambition in 1835. Furthermore, if we read Alroy in terms of the over-all pattern of thought in the Young England trilogy, the earlier novel must take on considerable ideational significance.

  4. David Alroy and his career have symbolic value in terms of both the Vindication and the Young England novels. In its simplest terms, Alroy’s mission is to deliver his people to their rightful position as tradition has defined that position. Alroy’s quest is, in one sense, predicated upon his ability to invoke principles both by which his people’s condition can be ameliorated and by which they can once more be brought into harmony with tradition. Essentially, of course, this is the mission of Young England and, in part, the intellectual proposition of the Vindication. Early in the novel, the clash between the proponent of the status quo (old Bostenay) and the advocate of a return to traditional greatness (paradoxically, therefore, of progress) sets the scene for Alroy’s drama. Bostenay is able to admit that “we have fallen on evil days, and yet we prosper” (Pt1Ch1), and, later, that “If life were a mere question between freedom and slavery, glory and dishonour, all could decide” (Pt1Ch1). He urges acceptance of the present situation and denies Alroy’s comments as the dreams of youth.

  5. David, however, is seized by the realization that acquiescing to the present is not what he can or must do, although he remains uncertain about any precise course of action: “I know not what I feel, yet what I feel is madness. Thus to be is not to live, if life be what I sometimes dream, and dare to think it might be. To breathe, to feed, to sleep, to wake and breathe again, again to feel existence without hope; if this be life, why then these brooding thoughts that whisper death were better?” (Pt1Ch1). This sounds very much like the young Coningsby or Egremont who realizes that he must engage change and embrace principles but is without a clear direction to follow. Indeed, the conversation between Bostenay and David bears resemblances to a dialogue between the old and new Toryism.2 Even the songs sung by the chorus of Hebrew maidens are applicable to the new Toryism; for example: “THE BRICKS ARE FALLEN, BUT WE WILL REBUILD WITH MARBLE: THE SYCAMORES ARE CUT DOWN, BUT WE WILL REPLACE THEM WITH CEDARS” (Pt1Ch2).

  6. When David Alroy emerges as the deliverer of his people, he is aided by the mystical, Cabalistic Jabaster, who is the Sidonia-like teacher. He is able to bring David into contact with the great principles of the past and to channel his zeal into programs which offer some possibilities for success. Jabaster refers to David as his pupil, and states that he has mused “o’er his [Alroy’s] future life . . . with a prophetic hope” (Pt3Ch1). Throughout the novel, the influence of Jabaster on Alroy is paramount, even during those months when Alroy violates his master’s counsel. Immediately after leaving Jabaster’s cave, the young deliverer’s adventures begin. He is seeking the sword of King Solomon through which he shall receive divine aid and which in itself is symbolic of the principles of tradition. Over and over again, David is rescued during his journey; and in every case he is saved by means of his religion. Furthermore he is guided and aided by a wide variety of mysterious as well as mystical occurrences.3 In my reading of the novel as allegory, David is protected by his belief in great principles. And as long as his belief in those principles remains firm and unaltered, Alroy is successful. Only after he decides to compromise his original dedication does he fall from favor and meet with failure.

  7. If Jabaster and David (during his quest) are representative of the dedication to traditional, efficacious principles, Schirene must be emblematic of the bed-and-board compromise which produces only boredom and isolation in the midst of a life of material luxury. She is neither happy nor even satisfied in the sumptuous, easy life she leads. Honain, on the other hand, the rationalist brother of Jabaster, is concerned only with the problem of surviving well. Perhaps a distant ancestor of Dickens’ Gradgrind, Honain is interested only in demonstrable facts as he sells himself for comfort and power. His only allegiance is to those mortal powers which can make him prosperous and secure (whether those powers be Hebrew, Moslem, or Karasmian). Committed to the principle of self, he thinks his brother deluded.

  8. To Alroy, both Schirene and Honain offer power and success without the “nonsense” of ideological commitment: “The world is before you. You may fight, you may love, you may revel. War, and women, and luxury are all at your command. With your person and talents you may be grand vizir. Clear your head of nonsense” (Pt5Ch4). Alroy, a young man, is taken with these possibilities, especially with the beauty of Schirene; but he is also a pilgrim and realizes that he must continue his quest. His note to Honain makes clear the extent of the temptation he experienced: “Honain, I have been the whole night like David in the wilderness of Ziph; but, by the aid of the Lord, I have conquered. I fly from this dangerous city upon his business, which I have too much neglected” (Pt5Ch6). Yet this is precisely the city to which Alroy will eventually return once he decides to alter and adapt the principles of tradition. Once again, the Schirene-Honain view of an uncommitted but prosperous life affords interesting parallels to the Young England conception of the old Toryism.

  9. The change which Alroy undergoes is carefully wrought by Disraeli. Through the early portions of the novel, the protagonist is able to operate successfully while balancing practical action on the one hand and commitment to principle on the other. From his early dialogue with Bostenay, we perceive Alroy as a man of action; from his first meeting with Jabaster, we perceive Alroy as a man of commitment. Jabaster, too, realizes the need for such a balance although he himself has lived in hermit-like, mystical isolation, apparently only awaiting the arrival of the deliverer. In this balance between action and commitment there are intimations of the later outlook of Sidonia and the men of Young England. We might suggest also that this is the relationship between action and thought which was operative in Disraeli’s own career—or, at least, in his own ideal rendering of that career. Clearly, then, there are two possible dangers inherent in such a state of equilibrium: the balance can be upset by either of the two elements gaining greater weight. Disraeli treats both possibilities in this novel and rejects both.

  10. After Alroy has left Jabaster’s cave and has begun his search for the sword, he listens to a debate between two learned rabbis regarding the whereabouts of the weapon. The contrast between the scholarly, rabbinic argument and Alroy’s need and desire for action is clear. Ultimately, the reader comes to recognize the rabbis’ dialogue to be sterile, meaningless prattle. Indeed, extolling the virtues of a learned treatise, one rabbi declares “the first chapter makes equal sense, read backward or forward” (Pt6Ch3). Clearly, Disraeli intimates, no progress can ever arise from such rarefied nonsense. Even Jabaster suggests that “the past is for wisdom, the present for action, but for joy the future” (Pt7Ch13). However, although Alroy properly recoils from the rabbis, he gradually moves to a position in which he finally states: “I’ll have no dreamers in authority. I must have practical men about me, practical men” (Pt8Ch1). From this rejection of tradition, it is only a short movement to “The world is mine: and shall I yield the prize . . . to realize the dull tradition of some dreaming priest, and consecrate a legend?” (Pt8Ch1).

  11. From this point of departure from tradition and principle, Alroy begins his downward turn to final ruin and capture by the Karasmians. Symbolically, as we shall see in the Young England trilogy, a marriage joins two opposing forces; but in this case destruction instead of strength is the result. Alroy is joined with Schirene; commitment is wedded to compromise. The offspring must be ruin for the committed, suggests the novel, as Alroy embraces compromise and conciliation in order to become the secular conqueror of the world in direct violation of the religious basis of his crusade. Jabaster’s plea to Alroy to reject Schirene and all she represents is essentially what Alroy was able to convince himself of after first having met Schirene and Honain:
    Arise, Alroy, arise and rouse thyself. The lure that snared thy fathers may trap thee, this Delilah may shear thy mystic locks. Spirits like thee act not by halves. Once fall out from the straight course before thee, and, though thou deemest ’tis but to saunter mid the summer trees, soon thou wilt find thyself in the dark depths of some infernal forest, where none may rescue thee! (Pt8Ch6)
  12. But Alroy’s dedication and commitment have been altered and sullied by success and power.4

  13. While preparing to counter-attack the numerous, massive military invasions against him, Alroy realizes that changes have taken place: neither he nor his soldiers are fired by zeal and commitment as they had been previously, the army is now but “splendid mercenaries,” and the symbolic sceptre of Solomon disappears. The last line of the chapter is a paraphrase of King Saul’s lament: “he [Alroy] flew to the couch, and throwing himself upon his knees, and, covering his face with his hands, burst into passionate tears, and exclaimed, ‘O! my God, I have deserted thee, and now thou hast deserted me!’” (Pt10Ch6). Disraeli meaningfully employs the Saul analogue again as Alroy speaks to the spirit of Jabaster who foretells his pupil’s defeat. Even after Alroy learns that Schirene and Honain had plotted Jabaster’s death, “he dismissed from his intelligence all cognizance of good and evil; he determined, under all circumstances to cling, ever to her; he tore from his mind all memory of the late disclosure” (Pt10Ch8). The balance has now been shifted to the side opposite the rabbis’ total immersion in speculation.

  14. After Alroy’s capture by the Karasmians, Honain (now working for the new conquerors) delivers the terms by which David can save himself and his sister: a public renunciation of the principles which had guided him to his former victories. But Alroy refuses, and thus Disraeli has his protagonist finally accept his commitment once again; in a grand moment, Alroy suffers death rather than complete and public renunciation of the validity of his tradition.5 So the novel concludes. Although in itself not one of its author’s more effective works, in its ideational complexities Alroy emerges as significant in terms of Disraeli’s later development in the Young England novels, especially in Tancred.

    * * * * * * * * * * * * *

  15. We recall that Disraeli had said, “In Vivian Grey I have portrayed my active and real ambition; in Alroy my ideal ambition.”6 That Disrael’s “active and real ambition” was realized is obvious. Not so clear, however, is his “ideal ambition.” Let us return for a brief further look at Alroy which has much in common with Tancred. Both novels deal with the past and with Judaism, but Disraeli’s thinking on these subjects had not yet been crystallized in 1833 in Alroy. But in Tancred (1847) we see that Disraeli had come to firmly conceived conclusions about both the past and Judaism. But one value of Alroy lies in its presentation—however groping and tentative—of a facet of Disraeli’s view of history.

  16. The events of the novel take place in the twelfth century. As we have seen, Alroy deals with the desire of David Alroy, a descendant of the House of David, to lift Israel to her former position of glory and grandeur. Beginning as a captive of the Mohammedans, Alroy escapes, goes to Jerusalem, leads an army devoted to his cause, and is successful in his holy war. He wins Western Asia for Israel, but Alroy is not content. He now feels that both he and Israel are invincible, and he desires the world for his God; “The Lord of Hosts” must have universal dominion. But the world is too much for Alroy, and he is defeated and taken prisoner once more. He is magnificent in death as he refuses freedom and faces execution rather than abandon his faith. In a grand speech, Alroy answers the charges brought against him by the king of his captors, the Karasmians:
    King of Karasmé! I stand here accused of many crimes. Now hear my answers. ’Tis said I am a rebel. My answer is, I am a Prince as thou art, of a sacred race, and far more ancient. I owe fealty to no one but to my God. . . . ’Tis well understood in every polity, my people stand apart from other nations, and ever will, in spite of suffering. . . . I am true to a deep faith of ancient days, which even the sacred writings of thy race still reverence. For the arts magical I practised, and the communion with infernal powers ’tis said I held, know, King, I raised the standard of my faith by the direct commandment of my God, the great Creator of the universe. What need of magic, then? What need of paltering with petty fiends, when backed by His omnipotence? My magic was His inspiration. Need I prove why, with such aid, my people crowded round me? The time will come when from out our ancient seed, a worthier chief will rise, not to be quelled even by thee, Sire. (Pt10Ch22)
  17. Since Disraeli said that Alroy represented his “ideal ambition,” he must have felt a kinship with David Alroy; but, as Monypenny points out, Disraeli was far too practical to devote his life to a religious crusade which had little chance of success.7 The quest of Alroy, however, never left Disraeli, although it was often reinterpreted and even sublimated in his works. In Alroy we see the first overt statement of Disraeli’s “racism” and the first implied statement of his medievalism. For Disraeli, there is an inevitability in his ancient race; from the depths of Judaism will come the salvation of man: “the time will come when from out our ancient seed, a worthier chief will rise. . . .” The spirit of history, for Disraeli, is the working out of that salvation. Furthermore, the placement of Alroy in the Middle Ages is not mere accident. As I point out at some length in the next chapter, the medieval religious view is significant for Disraeli because there had then taken place a synthesis between Judaism and Christianity, the Hebræo-Christian Church. The union between the God of the Old Testament and of the New Testament, between Disraeli’s ancestors and the early church fathers, which produced the God of Sinai and of Calvary, also produced the religious, political, and societal patterns whose working out in future ages was the ultimate stuff of history. Just as Coleridge desired to show that history was a process “governed by the consciousness of laws,” so Disraeli believed that the process of history was the working out of the spirit of the Hebræo-Christian Church. Like the Germano-Coleridgeans, Disraeli and his fictional heroes “were looking for a knowledge of the past which might suggest lines of action in the present.”8

  18. Disraeli, who saw the state as an organic structure and history as a living continuum, conceived of history as moving in a spiraling motion toward the fulfillment of the law of the God of Sinai and of Calvary, which law embraced all areas of man’s life. I have said that in each of the novels of the Young England trilogy, the organic, spiraling nature of history is illustrated as the past significantly influences the present and the future and that Disraeli deals with the three principal areas of societal, political, and religious organization. We see that, over and over again, the spirit of the principles and often the principles themselves which Disraeli’s protagonists come to accept are medieval in nature. Just as there is an apostolic succession in religion, so we see such a tradition in operation in secular areas of life, a tradition which for Young England must be re-asserted and followed.

  19. Coningsby and Sybil interpret this tradition in the areas of social organization and statecraft. In both novels, the disciples of the Young England movement come to see that there are no principles guiding English life, and they sincerely lament this fact. Through an educative process carefully constructed by the author, they come to realize the validity of the medieval ethos; and they attempt to implement the best of it in their own age. In Tancred, Disraeli shifts the focus from politics to religion. The possibility of a political solution to England’s great ills has reached an impasse, for the proponents of Young England are unfortunately in the distinct minority. Thus the author has Tancred move to an area greater than politics but one which must include politics. Tancred goes to Palestine to seek the answer to the great Asian mystery, an answer which solidifies the basis of Disraeli’s views of the Hebraeo-Christian Progress and the organic nature of society. Just as in the Middle Ages, government must follow the lead of the Church if the law-giver is to interpret the Law, so in Tancred the solution to the “condition of England” question is given its ultimate statement which involves a union between West and East. In each of the three novels, we see illustrated in imaginative form Disraeli’s general position that is outlined in this chapter.

Notes

1 Philip Guedalla, “A Note on ‘Alroy,’” Alroy (Bradenham Edition, London, 1927), vi.

2 This reading of Alroy does no harm to the biographical factors inherent in the novel. Certainly one can imagine Disraeli, an alien, lamenting the state of his frustrated ambitions in Alroy’s terms: “And even now a vivid flash darts through the darkness of my mind. Methinks, methinks: ah! worst of woes to dream of glory in despair. No, no; I live and die a most ignoble thing; beauty and love, and fame and mighty deeds, the smile of women and the gaze of men, and the ennobling consciousness of worth, and all the fiery course of the creative passions, these are not for me, and I, Alroy, the descendant of sacred kings, and with a soul that pants for empire, I stand here extending my vain arm for my lost sceptre, a most dishonoured slave!” (pp. 52-53).

3 View the episodes on the following pages of the novel for examples: IV.3, V.2, VI.4, VI.5, VI.6, VI.7, VI.7, VI.8.

4 The sharp differences between Jabaster and Honain are here made clear in terms of plot. Honain views the events of the previous evening’s interview between Alroy and Jabaster in perfectly rational terms—and at this moment Alroy wants nothing but such an explanation. However, given the events of the past, the novel clearly suggests that Alroy is foolish to discard Jabaster’s reading of events and of the entire mystical environment in which they both operated so successfully.

5 We might even argue here that Alroy is saved from a torturous death by his return to commitment.

6 Quoted in Monypenny and Buckle, I:185.

7 Monypenny and Buckle, I:200.

8 Robert Preyer, Bentham, Coleridge, and the Science of History (Bochum-Langendreer: H. Poppinghaus, 1958), 89. Throughout this Chapter, I am indebted to Preyer’s excellent study.

Published @ RC

January 2005

City